By John Talberth, PhD

Policy-makers are proposing remedies to Salem’s contaminated drinking water problem that may cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. But there are other, more cost-effective solutions that deal with the underlying problem in ways that shift the burden to polluters, not taxpayers. Phasing out industrial tree plantations sustained by clearcutting, chemicals, and fertilizers in our drinking water supplies is one. Combined with other source water protection measures such as restoring healthy riparian habitat, these restrictions may help Salem avoid a $200 million expense involved with a new treatment facility.

As noted by Mayor Bennett, industrial logging practices are one of several underlying causes of the toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) outbreak contaminating Detroit Reservoir and the North Santiam River. Coupled with climate change, these practices are creating a perfect storm that threatens drinking watersheds everywhere these practices are common. The Oregon Health Authority has warned that 41 watersheds are at risk, so this is a statewide issue.

The science is very well established. Toxic algal blooms thrive in warm, slow moving water contaminated by nutrients and chemicals that enhance their growth. Industrial forest practices help create such conditions by several means. Clearcut watersheds retain less moisture in their soil, and thus produce less water during the summer dry period. These streams run slower and hotter than those where forests have been adequately protected. Long term studies have demonstrated that heavily logged watersheds yield roughly 50% less water prior to the return of winter rains.

Clearcutting also raises water temperature because protective shade along streams is removed. Thanks to weak forest practices laws, the vast majority of streams on Oregon’s state and private forestlands have no protective buffers. The Department of Forestry’s own modeling shows that on average, clearcutting operations along unprotected streams boost water temperatures by 2.6 degrees – an amount that can make the difference between water that is cold enough to prevent toxic algal outbreaks and warmer water that provides ideal habitat for algae to grow.

Another cause involves chemicals and fertilizers liberally applied to tree plantations. Applications of herbicides such as glyphosate, 2-4-D, and atrazine routinely find their way into streams, rivers and lakes. In Lake Erie, glyphosate was found to be a key cause of the outbreak of toxic algae that brought Toledo to a standstill in the summer of 2014. Glyphosate is among a cocktail of herbicides and pesticides recently found in Eugene’s water supply as a result of both forestry and agriculture activities, and is likely prevalent wherever these practices take place. Application of nitrogen fertilizers like urea further exacerbates the risk. Urea is the most common fertilizer sprayed on timber plantations in Oregon.

The solution is obvious. The practice of industrial scale clearcutting and subsequent applications of chemicals and fertilizers must be prohibited in watersheds where Oregonians derive their drinking water supplies. Timber plantations that now exist can be thinned and otherwise restored to more climate resilient forests that can keep water cool and free of chemical and nutrient pollution. These sensible reforms were elements of legislation introduced by Representative Paul Holvey (D-Eugene) in 2017 and ones that are increasingly urgent to enact as climate change unfolds since warmer, drier conditions are likely to become the new normal. It’s time for legislators to break the paralysis over harmful forest practices and embrace solutions like those offered by Rep. Holvey as part of a comprehensive climate agenda passed during the 2019 session.

John Talberth is the President and Senior Economist at the Center for Sustainable Economy.